Back last year we wrote a ‘popular’ post about the top 10 roleplaying games of all time. In the post, I did explain my preference for culture games but also lacked to really talk about the concept. In thinking about it on the way to work this morning (driving is relative downtime), I figured it would be good to examine it due to some things that were said last night over iChat. Some of this discussion may end up contradicting myself even within the relative safety of this post.
By a ‘culture game’, I mean a game where there’s a component of learning about the culture as well as the opportunity to play non-combatant characters. It’s a game where people might talk about the richness of the setting or the feelings it evokes when they play. Part of this will be the game materials itself, part of it will be the player imaginations and part of it will be the style of the GM.
Just to muddy the waters, I’m going to discuss this in terms of the amount of culture I perceive the game to have. It doesn’t matter if the game is mainstream or indie, that’s not invquestion here and indeed, many indie games which are popular I would not describe as culture games specifically.
It’s also important not to fall into the trap of thinking that Low-Culture = Bad and High-Culture = Good. That’s not the case at all. Most of the difference is that I can probably get a Low-Culture game running very easily and find players for it without much issue. In comparison, finding players for a High-Culture game can often be impossible.
The first gut reaction here is any game where Combat is the main thing. I’d hazard Cyberpunk, SLA Industries, Marvel Super Heroes (in any incarnation), Mutants and Masterminds and pretty much any incarnation of games from White Wolf or any of the D&D settings (yes, there are exceptions but they’re outliers to the rule). Most of the d20 line in fact has ‘genericised’ the settings so much that it’s hard not to feel like a fighter or magic user that’s rolled off a production line. Some of the games have such strong archetypes that it’s somewhat fruitless to soften them up because you end up playing an archetype or something that feels deliberately unlike an archetype (which is a cliche). I include Marvel Super Heroes here because, unless you’ve been reading comics for the last 50 years or so, you’re not going to get a real feel for Marvel (and to a degree this counts for most settings based on licensed material).
My worst experience with this was with D&D. To a degree this feeling of being a ‘generic adventurer’ is the fault of the GM who introduced us to the campaign world by giving us a blank character sheet and the Players Handbook. No real notes on the world, the culture, the towns and cities, how society feels about wandering mobs of ruffians armed with weapons and magic (the player characters). In short, the stuff we should know from living in a world for a score years or more.
I consider Call of Cthulhu to be low culture but find that the players who play it tend to refer high culture. I am lucky to be in a gaming group with Cthulhu experts – they spend a lot time on Yog-Sothoth forums, they have played pretty much every module and read pretty much every scenario and background. They order the monograms. In this way the players and GMs bring culture to the game and you’ll find there are games which may be, on the face of it, low culture but which have broken free of that definition due to a particular setting, a particularly good GM or a set of players who want a certain type of play. The conclusion there is that it’s possible for players and GM to bring culture to a game.
I’d be rightfully accused as a Culture-Snob in truth. These are games where the game is designed with a copious amount of information and great depth within. There’s a difference, of course, in these games. Some, like Tekumel and Glorantha, have vast amounts of content provided for them. Some, like Skyrealms of Jorune, have relatively little. But the feel of the game is to embody a rich and diverse background where just wandering down the street provides inspiration and adventure. Where you can have as much fun roleplaying buying your new uniform as you can hunting down a rogue Ahoggya.
In fact, in these games it’s my experience that it’s hard to have a ‘bad game’ because the opportunities for the players to direct the story are so much greater. This isn’t an ‘indie’ thing where we have to outline our confrontations and desired outcomes and bend the story, through shared participation of multiple GM-like figures to a crescendo of story and personality. No. This is just that the background is so interesting that there’s absolutely no need to think of a plot because the players tell you what they want to do. Ars Magica is perhaps one of the best examples of this as it gets to a point where running a game is just fielding questions and playing roles rather than providing plot. The players run with the plot themselves. The Magi want Vis so they get their grogs and companions to find it. They drive the plot forwards. Likewise in Tekumel, there’s so much to do and see (including trying not to get impaled), that you want to experience it all. I find this with Glorantha (though the source materials are harder to get) that there’s a hundred rich cultures and very few of them are Western European Mediaeval (which Ars Magica covers very well, thanks).
So if I prefer High-Culture, why have I been playing Delta Green, Cthulhu by Gaslight and why am I intend to run Godlike for them?
Firstly because there’s a large component of ‘fun’ made up of having the right players and the right GM. If everyone wants to play the game then it’s fun, right? It doesn’t matter if it’s a D&D dungeon crawl with inexplicably large monsters behind small doors, if you’re having fun then it’s all good. And that’s why we’re doing this.
Secondly, many culture games are not particularly accessible. They’ve not done well in the market and therefore tend to go out of print. It’s no wrong things that the vast majority of gamers want to play something with a little less depth. Being handed a large folder of source material for your culture alone and seeing another player getting a similar folder for a different culture can be daunting.
Lastly, it can be very hard to match the expectations of players. Some Low-Culture games have copious amounts of source material (Witness the amount I’m massing for running this Godlike game) and some of the players you have might have read a lot around the subject. Ask them about the pitch of the game. Do they want it to be authentic or ‘four colour’. Ask them if they have recommendations on source materials. Being loaned books from your players to help you get a feel for the type of game they are interested in is a big help.
For example, with this Godlike game. Do they want to play a “Saving Private Ryan” game? A “Band of Brothers” game? “A Bridge Too Far”? “Where Eagles Dare”? Using these ‘popular culture’ references we can meet their expectations and provide a lot of background and setting material to what would otherwise be possibly a very dry game.
My group are also fond of copious handouts. That’s a new challenge.